August 13, 2013

Fat Tuesday: Tall-ow Tales

Welcome to another installment of Fat Tuesday, the series where I drop some knowledge bombs about fats and oils. In previous posts, I’ve mentioned beef tallow. If you’re confused about tallow, what it is, where to get it, and, most important of all, what to do with it and how to use it to make some seriously delicious eats, wait no more. It's time to bring this traditional, favorite fat back into the American kitchen!

Beef tallow is fat rendered from beef (duh). The fat that’s on the meat or removed from the rest of a cow by a butcher is called suet. When the suet is rendered down and all the meaty tidbits and bits of whatever else (cartilage, etc.) are strained out, the pure fat you’re left with is tallow. Tallow was a favorite fat back in the day, before the government decided that all of a sudden animal fats were bad for us. (News flash: they’re not.) It was prized by homesteaders, homemakers, and artisans of various trades, as it is extremely versatile and has nifty uses that go far beyond making foods delicious. Back in the day, tallow was used to make soap, candles, body balms, and other handy products. (See the end of this post for links to people who are still doing this the old-fashioned way.)

Our main interest here on this site, though, is its use in the kitchen. As tallow is mostly saturated and monounsaturated, it is one of the most stable fats to use for higher heat cooking. In fact, back in the day—which was a Wednesday, by the way (thanks, Dane Cook!)—McDonald’s used it in their fryers, but all H-E-double hockey sticks broke loose when the vegetarian folks found out, and they teamed up with the nutrition authorities of the time and Mickey D’s subsequently changed to using vegetable oil. (Watch the video in this link! It’s only a minute long and will be worth your time!)  Kind of a shame, if you ask me. One, using tallow allowed McD’s to use not just the meat from the countless cows that were raised for their burgers, but also the fat. Two, tallow is a safer cooking fat than the polyunsaturated oils they use now. And three, tallow makes fried foods darn tasty. It’s been years since a McD’s fry graced my palate, but I certainly remember them tasting better when I was a kid, back before they made the switch. What do they use now besides vegetable oils that are not suitable for deep-fat frying? Wheat and dairy for flavoring. And here you thought they were just potatoes. (OT: Are you starting to see now why people who need to avoid gluten and dairy for health reasons have a much harder time than simply ditching bread and milk? BTW…the “hydrolyzed wheat” they mentioned? That’s food industry shorthand for MSG.)

Okay, so tallow is very stable for cooking and is delicious. Assuming you trust me enough to at least be somewhat curious about it and possibly want to get your hands on some to play around with in the kitchen, where can you buy some? ‘Cuz it’s not like they sell this at your local supermarket. With all the unfounded fear about saturated fats that persists despite an appalling lack of scientific evidence for that position, you will not find containers of tallow nestled nicely near the butter.

Your best bet for superior quality tallow is buying directly from a farmer. If there’s a good meat vendor at a farmer’s market near you, or you can take the time to go to an awesome nearby livestock farm, you might be able to purchase tallow rendered from the farm’s own cows. (It’s usually sold in pint containers.) Please be sure that the tallow you buy is from cows that were grass fed and grass finished. This is muy importante. (I’ll get to why in a minute.)

Cow + pasture = the way nature intended.

But if you can’t find it at a market and don’t live anywhere near a farm where they’re raising animals on pasture (but I find this hard to believe, as there are grass-based farms all over the place), you can make tallow at home, and it is insanely easy.

Before I get to that, though, let’s talk about the nutritional properties of tallow, shall we? ‘Cuz you know me…there’s nothing I like better than talking about why animal fats are good for us! Like I said earlier, it’s mostly saturated and monounsaturated. And of the monounsaturated portion, it’s mostly oleic acid, Yep, that’s right: pure beef fat contains a hefty amount of the same type of fatty acid in olive oil, which seems to be the only one all the warring nutritional factions agree on as being healthful.

Good tallow should be yellowish in color. Why? Good question. See, a yellowish color is a sign the cow was grass finished. Why? Another good question. Y’know all the grass the cows eat all their lives? Well, that stuff has things like beta-carotene in it (the stuff that makes carrots and sweet potatoes orange – it also makes things green…it ain’t just the chlorophyll!). That, along with other carotenes and phytochemicals in the various species of grasses the cows are raised on actually give the cows’ fat that distinctive color. They eat a ton of that stuff, and the color sort of concentrates inside their bodies.

Okay, so good tallow is yellowish, and yellowish means grass-finished. Why does that matter? Yellow isn’t a flavor after all, it’s a color. (Contrary to what Homer Simpson would have you believe about purple.) Why is it important for your tallow to come from grass-finished cows? I’ll nix the discussion about sustainability, humane animal husbandry, and all that jazz, and focus just on nutrition. (‘Cuz I’m pretty sure this post will be plenty long enough without wandering down those rabbit holes just now.) So yeah, grass-finished. Fat from ruminant animals that consume their natural, biologically appropriate diet of grasses (instead of GMO corn & soy, as is standard practice in industrial feedlots) contains a type of fatty acid called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)CLA has been shown to be (possibly) beneficial for cancer prevention and for body fat loss (especially around the abdomen). Cows fed grain before slaughter will still produce some CLA, but far less than animals that are grass-finished. You do not want to use tallow from grain-fed, feedlot animals. You’d still get some good saturated and monounsaturated fats, but since it’s the pure fat, I’d steer clear of using it regularly as a cooking fat. (If you can’t get good tallow from grass-fed animals, skip it. You can eat the fat on your steak, but I wouldn’t render tallow from that meat.)

Some people who try grass-finished beef complain that it’s too lean. This makes it tough and dry, as opposed to grain-fed meat, which is tender and juicy. I beg to differ. Yes, grassfed can be leaner and drier, but only if you don’t know how to cook it properly. (For tips, try this and this.)  Grass-fed also does tend to have less fat, but less fat does not equate to lean. If you think grassfed beef is too lean to be tasty, take a look at these pics and bask in all the yellow, CLA-containing, delicious, nourishing fat. There is plenty of fat on these grass finished steers. (Warning: It’s a visit to an old-school butcher shop. Some of the pictures might be disturbing for you.)

Okay. We’ve established that tallow was traditionally a prized fat for many reasons. Now, on to the good stuff, like HOW YOU MAKE IT!

The easiest way to get some tallow is to take a fatty cut of beef and make it in a slow cooker. The fat will melt out and after just a couple of kitchen maneuvers, you’ll be able to separate it from the rest of the dish. There is almost no work required on the part of the cook. The slow cooker takes care of most of it.

Here’s how I did it:

I started with bone-in beef short ribs. (Always cook meat on the bone if you can – more flavor and more minerals!) I didn’t take any pics of the ribs, but they were grass-finished, and believe me, they were fatty. So fatty that I cut off some of the fat before cooking and was still left with a half pint of tallow when all was said and done. I used a recipe similar to this one, but skipped the balsamic vinegar and used a 14oz can of diced tomatoes w/chilies instead of the sauce. (And a different cut of meat.) I let it go for about 6 hours, and when it was finished, I removed the vegetables and meat (which slipped right off the bones and was so tender I could’ve eaten it with a spoon, no joke) to a separate container and poured the remaining liquid into a big glass bowl. Probably the most important thing to make sure of is that when the cooking’s done, you have an appropriate vessel for receiving the burning hot liquid. Do not, repeat, do not strain it into a plastic container! Use glass. Stainless steel or porcelain are okay, too. (If you have nothing like those, you can also just leave it right there in the crockpot bowl, assuming your crockpot bowl will fit in your fridge. It’ll just take longer to cool down, since the bowl itself will be insanely hot.)

Next, put the bowl in your fridge or freezer and wait a few hours. (The fridge will take longer…possibly overnight.) As the whole shebang cools, the fat will rise to the top and solidify. (Remember, saturated fats are solid at room temperature and colder.) 

You can clearly see how the fat has risen to the top and is 
a distinct layer from the rest of the liquid.

When it’s solid, you’ll be able to lift it off, put it in a container and keep it in your fridge or freezer for use whenever you want it. At this point, it’s perfectly okay to store the fat in a plastic container, as it is not hot anymore, and the main things you want to avoid with regard to plastic food containers are heat and acidity (neither of which is an issue with cold tallow).

See? It just kind of comes off in chunks. 
(The rest of the liquid was beefy, tomato-y deliciousness and  
got put back with the short ribs & veg.)

If you were super-hardcore, you would take the extra step of reheating the cold tallow to melt it down, and then strain it through a cheesecloth to remove any teeny tiny beef bits that remain, courtesy of the short ribs. To be honest, I skip this. Frankly, I can’t be bothered. (Come on, it’s enough for now that this wannabe homesteader stuck in suburbia even makes her own tallow, right?)  I’ve found that for my purpose of using it as a cooking fat, straining is unnecessary. I simply put it in a container and stick it in the freezer, where it will last practically fuh-evah. (Not that it’ll be around that long, since you’ll be cooking all kinds of things in it. Fried potatoes come to mind, of course, but it’s also great for greasing skillets to make eggs, and using to sauté greens, like kale and chard.) If I were going to go super old-school and make candles or soap from it, then yeah, I’d strain it. (You wouldn’t want itty bitty beef bits in the shower with you! ... Or maybe you would. Who am I to judge?)

YUM. By the way, the reason it’s so orange is b/c of the chili powder and paprika 
in the short rib recipe. If I hadn’t used those, this would have been closer to 
the color of butter. The color here does not affect the flavor…I know, I tasted it!
(You can see my spoon tracks in the upper right, heehee.)

Yes, it’s that simple. No fancy equipment required. (No, cheesecloth is not fancy. You can usually find it at your neighborhood supermarket if you know where to look.) No reason at all to be intimidated. Tallow is a lovely byproduct of something you might make any night of the week anyway.

If you’re still skeer’d of trying to do it yourself and don’t have the time or desire to find a local farm, you can order it online! Good tallow, delivered right to your door! You’ve got no excuses now! (*Note: I have no financial relationship with U.S. Wellness Meats [yet, hehheh] and do not “get a cut” if you purchase from them. Just passing along good info from a source I trust.)

Here are some other people’s takes on making tallow at home, starting with suet and pure fat, rather than getting it from meat:

Homemade Mommy Super Easy Tallow – Get a load of how yellow that fat is! I love her tip for using the silicone ice cube trays. Genius! I don’t know anything about the safety of silicone cookware, though, so I’ll refrain from commenting about that. (Also: in case you ignored me earlier when I said to watch the video in this link, please do it now. Seriously, 67 seconds of your time to listen to the late, very great Julia Child weigh in on McD’s fries.)

Cook Like Your Grandmother - Note how much whiter the fat is…possibly from grain-fed animals. And now that I think about it, maybe using grain-fed tallow isn’t the worst thing in the world. Yes, it’ll have less CLA and other nutrients, but it’s probably still a better bet for high-heat cooking than, say, soybean or canola oil. Yes, I’m stepping down from my high horse. These animals are raised for the specific purpose of feeding us. The least we can do to honor their sacrifice is use all parts of them, including the fat. Render away.

Other nifty uses for tallow:

Why would you want to use tallow on your skin? Simple. The skin is the body’s largest organ, and it eats and breathes just like the rest of us. I’m not an expert on natural skincare, but I know they say to never put on your skin anything you wouldn’t eat. And I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t eat most of what’s listed on the label of the typical scented and colored lotions from the drugstore or the froo-froo body/bath stores. [Good luck pronouncing most of ‘em, let alone wanting to eat ‘em.])

And just in case I haven’t wasted enough of your time given you enough to chew on (no pun intended), here’s a really wonderful essay on natural fats vs. manmade and chemically altered fats and what they’ve done to our health:

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.

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